Where I Left Them
It was the end of May, a warm, full, yellow sun in the sky. We gathered in the morning and, with great concentration, packed a picnic lunch. There was some discussion about whether to assemble the sandwiches now, or to pack the ingredients separately. Assembling them just before eating, my mother argued, meant a fresher sandwich. I remember thinking: Who cares? I walked in confusion between the house and the car, where my brother and sister-in-law were packing diapers and teething rings and many small hats. Fragments of sentences followed me, hanging in the air. On one of those befuddled walks, my boyfriend directed me to sit in the car and then the five of us, plus the baby, buckled in and drove to the Los Angeles Zoo.
A trip to the zoo must have been a way of passing time in a week when the hours seemed like entire days. I really had no idea. Maybe we went to entertain my year-old nephew. Maybe we went because it was a beautiful day in May and we wanted to see some animals. Maybe we went because it was three days after my father died, after a long year of steady, decaying illness, and the funeral, still more than a day away, was looming over us. Possibly, it was to escape from the hordes of people who invaded my parents’ home, calling and coming over, always there, always talking and always crying.
We drove up the freeway, parked and unpacked the car and trudged over the bridge that separates the zoo from the parking lot. My feet were heavy; I was exhausted though I had done nothing at all. We bought our tickets without speaking, and pushed the baby, ensconced in his stroller, through the gate.
Just inside the entrance of the L.A. Zoo are the flamingoes. Whenever I visit the zoo, I am startled by these birds and by what for me is a sort of childish time warp: They are in their pond at the front, just where they’d always been over the course of my lifetime, just as I’d left them the last visit. “They’re still here!” I think every time, and every time I am delighted. I find flamingoes transfixing, and fascinating, each one a set piece of contradictions. They are awkward and elegant, incongruous and perfect, beautiful and silly. The feathers on a flamingo are truly a stunning orange-tinged pink. On close examination it is possible to understand how a bird’s plumage, like a head of hair, is not a single color, but rather a composite of many colors that create a unified impression.
We stood before the flamingos and gawked. My nephew was entranced and would not be moved. Why go in? Why go further? What is more fantastic than a flamingo? “Why don’t we have one at our house?” my boyfriend asked. He’d been agitating for a plastic pink flamingo to go in the front yard next to the roses. I couldn’t recall why I’d objected, except to say that my garden was not ironic. Now I told him that a plastic flamingo was nothing at all like the real thing, as though somehow that was the point.
All over the pond, flamingos were going to sleep or waking up, some tucking their heads under their wings and gracefully folding up one leg for napping, others un-tucking and stretching their legs and shaking their feathers in the sun over and over. There was a rhythm to the continuous movement of the group, like breaking waves rolling on shore and we watched hypnotically, dreamlike, until one of us raised a head and looked around and shook the others and so we moved on. How long had we stood there? An hour? Ten minutes? I couldn’t tell.
Picnic tables appeared and—though it was early, maybe not yet even eleven—we sat down to eat. I didn’t know why we were eating so soon and I protested, saying we hadn’t seen anything yet, but of course we had seen the flamingos. We ate and talked, but all the conversation seemed just out of earshot, and I couldn’t quite get the thread of it. Then suddenly we were tidying up and on our way, baby in the stroller, moving on. It occurred to me then that no one wanted to carry the lunches and it was easier to eat and throw away the bags and discard all the debris than to burden ourselves as we traversed the zoo. I remember having that thought, and being impressed that I had worked out the logic of it. “Oh, I get it,” I might have said to someone, my mother, or my brother.
The L.A. Zoo is organized by continents and we walked straight through North America and passed Asia to get to my favorite: Africa. On the way, I had stupid thoughts about time zones: If I went to the koala house, which ostensibly would qualify as Australia, would my father have been dead two days or four?
We visited the zebras. A zebra, like a flamingo, is another marvel of nature, a fantastic creature. No two zebras share the same pattern of stripes, those dizzying marvelous coats, the whorls of hair. The individual patterns are as distinct as thumbprints are for humans. Mesmerized, I stared at those stripes, trying to see the differences between two zebras standing entangled in the enclosure. I was consumed, exhausted, by the effort and, suddenly startled into awareness, I realized they had begun to mate and that my family had moved on. It felt like voyeurism, so I moved along quickly down a sloping hill towards the giraffe enclosure where my family waited.
I know that a giraffe is a large animal, but I was totally unprepared for the sheer enormity of a giraffe’s erection, which happened to be on view that day. Also unprepared was the grade school teacher with her class, twenty-odd six- and seven-year-olds who were goggle-eyed at what was perhaps the whitest, largest penis in the world. After chasing the (presumably) she-giraffe around, the male giraffe mounted and dismounted his mate in what seemed like a ludicrously short time. The penis came out dripping, prompting the kids to guffaw and point and shriek. I laughed and then stopped, surprised by my laughter, and exchanged amused looks over the children’s heads with the teacher.
We moved on to the elephants. The elephants, like the giraffes and the zebras, were clearly in the mood for love and would have been going at it had they not been separated by a metal gate. One elephant rubbed its hindquarters against the metal while the other one reached through with its trunk, and, in what looked like supreme frustration, rattled the bars. A caretaker was in the pen.
I called to him, “Is this normal? The zebras, the giraffes? All the animals seem to be mating at once.”
He shrugged. “It’s Spring.”
It was indeed Spring and feverish everywhere we went. In Asia, in the Americas, in the bear enclosure, and in the wart hog pen the animals were all getting it on, or trying to. In the reptile house a pair of snakes was writhing in what looked suspiciously like ecstasy. Do snakes feel ecstasy? I wanted to ask that question, but it seemed wrong to say it out loud. I laughed and then stopped, looking around, as though someone else had made that noise. But it was all terribly, terribly funny, and all of us laughed, while trying to stop, saying how weird it felt to be laughing. Only the baby laughed without stopping himself, chuckling at the animals, smiling without remembering that he didn’t want to, or shouldn’t.
We walked and walked all through the world of the zoo, laughing, stopping our laughter, talking and stopping our talking, always walking. I was perfectly still on the inside, but moving on the outside, looking at the animals, who kept on doing what they always do—eating, playing, sleeping, fucking—heedless of who was there watching or who wasn’t.
We walked around and around because the zoo is really just one big loop, with all the paths connected. We walked through the hours and Asia and Australia and back through Africa and the Americas until the baby was asleep. We pushed the stroller past the flamingos—see you next time, guys, I thought—and crossed over the bridge into the parking lot towards the car, moving back onto the freeway, back into time, back towards the space of the house, into what was next in store for us.
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Adrienne Pilon has recently published essays in Full Grown People, Scary Mommy, and more. Though a Californian at heart, she lives in North Carolina with her family. She teaches English and is an academic counselor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.